|

Slugger Lee’s four-year contract with Giants a big surprise

by Wayne Graczyk

The news about Korean slugger Lee Seung Yeop signing a four-year contract with the Yomiuri Giants, announced Nov. 5, seemingly came out of the blue and is rather surprising, considering the first baseman’s longtime aspirations to play in the major leagues.

However, the team’s proposal to include a clause that would allow Lee to go to the majors should the Giants win the Japan Series, is a great idea.

The pact will reportedly pay Lee an average of 650 million yen (about $5.6 million) per year through the 2010 season when he will be 34 years old, so it is doubtful if he will ever play for a North American team, a dream he might have realized in 2007, unless Yomiuri wins the Japan championship during the next four seasons.

It has been thought Lee is using Japanese baseball as a steppingstone to a career on the other side of the Pacific.

He went from the Korea Baseball Organization (where he set an Asian single-season record with 56 home runs in 2003 with the Samsung Lions) to Japan and two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines, then to the high-profile Giants, and the next move should have been to a club in the American or National leagues.

One reason Lee left the Marines for Yomiuri was said to have been the fact Lotte was reluctant to offer him a one-year deal for 2006, insisting on a multiyear agreement; whereas, the Giants were willing to sign him for a single season.

He enjoyed a consistent year at the plate, finishing second in the Central League with 41 home runs, a .323 batting average and drove in 108 runs.

But a lot of those homers were solo shots, and the Giants want Lee to be more of a clutch hitter and team player with a better RBI-to-home -run ratio.

Scouts from several MLB teams checked him out during the just-concluded campaign, and one National League club sent several officials, including its general manager, to Japan in late September.

They saw Lee hit a couple of dingers and watched him get four hits in one game, and they were prepared to make him an offer.

However, Lee had been bothered most of the year by a sore left knee and decided to undergo surgery Oct. 13 to repair ligament damage.

He was quoted as saying he felt his major-league value would be diminished because of uncertainty about his recovery, and he was putting the MLB dream on hold, apparently for a year.

Now it is to be shelved for at least four seasons, unless he can help lead the Giants out of the second division, into the CL playoffs and Japan Series and win the whole bag of kimchi.

Lee aggravated the already troublesome knee problem during a mid-season game at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, when Yomiuri was playing the Yakult Swallows.

With two runners on base, he hit a blooper over shortstop, and Swallows left fielder Alex Ramirez made what the umpires ruled a shoestring catch, but video replays showed the ball was trapped.

Certain Ramirez had caught the ball on a bounce, the frustrated Lee argued with the umps, then kicked an advertising sign on the fence in front of the Giants bench, and his knee got worse.

He had been headed for a 50-homer year but missed some at-bats because of the injury, and he watched former rival in Korea, now Chunichi Dragons first baseman Tyrone Woods, pass him by and eventually win the CL homer derby with 47 blasts.

Obviously, the Giants are confident their cleanup hitter will successfully complete rehabilitation and be ready to start knocking the cover off the ball when the 2007 season begins March 30, or they would not have spent so much money to keep him.

While Lee’s ability and potential are not in doubt, it is questionable whether Yomiuri would be better off with or without him, and that is why the contract stipulation on winning is so important.

One way of looking at the situation, which is apparently the way the Giants are thinking, is to say they finished in fourth place with Lee, and he is far and away their best hitter.

So, without him, they would be that much worse.

On the other hand, you could say they ended up in the CL’s B class — even with him. So, what good will it be to keep him, if they cannot improve the team by making other player moves?

Had they lost him, they might have gotten someone else; not necessarily a better player, but one who could improve the chemistry and balance of the Yomiuri lineup, overloaded with left-handed batters, including Lee.

Unless Kyojin manager Tatsunori Hara has plans to move Lee to left field, it now appears unlikely the Giants will try to acquire a free-agent first baseman such as Woods or Nippon Ham Fighters superstar Michihiro Ogasawara.

Lee has made it known he is not that fond of playing the outfield, and it is better he stays at first with respect to his knee situation.

The CL teams, except during interleague play, do not use designated hitters.

Also, the recent trade bringing right-handed hitting Yoshitomo Tani from the Orix Buffaloes should solidify the Giants’ outfield defensively.

Ogasawara could play third base for Yomiuri and replace Hiroki Kokubo, looking to use his own free agency to return to Fukuoka and the Softbank Hawks, but that would give Hara yet another lefty swinger along with Lee, catcher Shinnosuke Abe, second baseman Ryota Wakiya and outfielders Yoshinobu Takahashi and Takahiro Suzuki.

In any event, Lee will stay at Tokyo Dome at least for 2007, playing with an unusual incentive clause that puts more emphasis on winning than individual statistics — a brilliant concept.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com